Put a fork in it, it's done! Though not done the way I wanted it. For now, this entry will have to be relatively short. I am tired. I am the most tired I've ever been after a bike ride. Scratch that, this is the most physical challenging thing I've ever done in my life. I'll write a full ride report after I get some rest and once I get my videos edited and uploaded. I wanted to post some pictures but the internet connection at this hotel is spotty and won't let me. So I'll post some tomorrow...
So this morning, I woke up at 4am and had breakfast, loaded all my bags/gear on the bus (the bus was to drive to Alpe d'Huez and drop all our stuff of at the hotel), and then headed down to Modane for the beginning of the ride. It was quite a sight seeing the thousands of cyclings lining up for this ride. There were 9500 there this morning. It's actually quite well organized, with all of us being assigned to "holding pens" according to our bib numbers and the pens being released sequentially. This also made it useful to gauge your program... if you noticed that most of the people around you had lower numbers, then you were riding strong and were moving ahead in the mass. If you saw higher numbers around you, you were falling behind your own group.
In any case, after a fast descent, we hit the Telegraphe. It's a tough climb (category 1) so it wasn't anything to sneeze at but it wasn't terrible either. Oh, and to remind you guys about the mountain "categories"... the climbs are categorized from cat 4 (easy) to cat 1 (very hard). As a reference, Bear Mountain in NY (4.5 miles at ~4.3%) would be a cat 4 climb. There's also a category called "hors categorie" or HC. These climbs are even harder than the cat 1 climbs. So the Telegraphe was a hard climb but most people seemed to get past it pretty well. Next up was the Galibier, which is a brute of a climb. HC category going for 18.1km at 6.9% (with the last 8km averaging close to 10%). This climb broke a lot of people. There were people cramping, walking, etc. But I managed to do okay. I stopped on the bike to take a couple of pictures but otherwise, progress over the climb was steady and I finished it without much difficulty.
After an intense and slightly dangerous descent of the Galibier, we finally hit (in my opinion) the most iconic of the Alpine climbs... the legendary Alpe d'Huez, with its brutal 21 switchbacks and its gradient of nearly 8% for 14km. Let me just say that this climb broke me. At switchback 15, I accelerated to climb past a slower group and my hamstring decided to call it a day, seizing up and shooting a searing pain up my thigh into my hip. And I was off the bike. I tried to shake it out, massage it, walk a bit and get on the bike again... but it was gone.
Now the thing about the Etape is that there are time eliminations. If you don't get to a particular checkpoint by a given time, you are stopped and put in a shuttle bus and your bike is thrown in the back of a truck. Your day is over. There is also a final time by which you have to finish or the bus will "sweep" you up and your day is done.
Anyways, I made it to the first checkpoint with an hour to spare and by the time I reached Alpe d'Huez, I had a 2 hour 30 minute window before the sweep van would come through. I was expecting to do the climb in 1:30 so I thought I had plenty of time. Unfortunately, once my hamstring went I had to walk up most of the climb (which is much slower than riding, obviously). At 2.5km from the finish, the bus shuttle came up behind me. I refused to get on the bus and I wouldn't let them take my bike. I was determined to get up the climb on my own two legs, be it on a bike or by walking. I hadn't come 3000 miles to be picked up by a bus. I eventually crossed the finish line 30 minutes after the final accepted time. (Yes, it took me almost 3 hours to walk up ~7km of Alpe d'Huez.) So officially, it's a DNF (did not finish) but at least I didn't take the bus. And I made it to the top of that climb with my own two legs. Damn my hamstring though.
Overall though, it was a remarkable experience. It was a ton of fun, it was the most challenging thing I've done yet, and I met some really cool people. I'll have to tell you guys about some of the people I've met and post some pictures tomorrow, internet connection permitting. Okay, off to bed...